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The Present and Future of HR (Author Q&A)

In the last few years, HR has been under the spotlight with remote work, inclusion and automation being some of the matters that have shaken the industry.

How has the function changed, what are the skills necessary to succeed in the role and what does the future hold for HR professionals?

We’ve asked five of our experts to answer these questions and share their give advice to those who are just starting their HR career.

In your opinion, what is the number one essential skill for HR Professionals and why?

Anna Tavis: The number one essential skill for HR professionals is our ability to listen. Attentive listening leads to a better understanding of people, issues and opportunities; appreciative listening requires paying attention to details that lead to actionable insights. Consider coaching, for example. Coaching starts with good listening first. The best measure of coaches’ success is the ratio of their listening to their speaking. Amplified with smart technology and employee data, listening becomes the most powerful organization management skill. To build a culture focused on employee experience, HR needs to learn how to listen first.

Stephen Frost: Interpersonal skills, such as communication and self-awareness are key in many roles, particularly HR where people are the focus. The ability to know our own biases and be aware of how we communicate with others are key elements in creating an inclusive culture.

Stela Lupushor: The number one essential skill for HR professionals is the ability to be the champion for a great workplace experience. It might show up in how the HR programmes are designed, how employee communications are phrased, how managers are enabled and empowered to create great teams or how workplace-related decisions are made with the consideration of all impacted stakeholders.

Ben Eubanks: While it may not be seen as a skill per se, the number one thing HR professionals need to have in their toolbox is business acumen. They need to get why the business exists, how it makes money and what its customers need. That understanding allows them to hook the people functions (hiring, development, retention) into those business and operational areas, creating more value and impact through that alignment. I'll put it this way: the best HR pros know the business and the business knows them in return as valuable contributors.

Adela Schoolderman: The ability to be consultative. In order to truly move from being a support organization into being a strategic business partner, HR professionals must be confident in advising leaders and employees based on data-driven decisions.

Michael J. Leckie: Curiosity. Curiosity is the number one skill for HR professionals. HR today is at a crossroads. Down one road, the road I’ll call Vendor Management, is the HR organization that has outsourced everything and is managing a patchwork quilt of software, consultants and content. This HR organization is small and functional but does not, in and of itself, add much strategic value. The second road, which I’ll call Thinking Partners, embodies a different kind of HR organization. Here, HR professionals know that helping their colleagues and leaders find the right questions is better than just answering the questions posed to them. They understand that they need help others figure out their true challenges, come up with ways to manage those challenges and help hold them accountable to do so. And this kind of work can be done alongside any of the functional expertise categories we have in HR: talent, systems, compensation, development, etc. So, the HR professional who has socially contracted to be curious, armed themselves with some great questions (the way you operationalize curiosity) and are known to help their colleagues think better are the ones who will thrive tomorrow.

What do you think the biggest challenge for HR professionals in 2023 will be?

Anna Tavis: In the context of the last three years, the biggest challenge for HR has been the disruption of workforce cohesion. The impact of social polarization, the loosening of communal bonds, the remote workplace arrangements and the overreliance on technology in lieu of personal relationships - these trends disrupt social equilibrium at work. The growing challenge for HR leaders would be to invent new ways of uniting people around a common purpose, work towards a shared mission and bond around the collective employee experience.

Stephen Frost: Data skills and understanding of how to leverage the data in your organization will become more and more essential as our use of technology and automation increases. Additionally, with the potential tightening of budgets, this understanding of your organization will allow you to make targeted, effective D&I and HR interventions that are evidence-based. This data allows leaders to be held to account and shifts the conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion from anecdotal to evidential. This data must look beyond demographics, including pulse surveys, grievances and exit data.

Stela Lupushor: As we move into a future of workers' scarcity, HR has the opportunity to bring more humanity and empathy to the work environment and to be the advocate for the workers amidst increased automation and algorithmic decision-making. HR professionals will need an understanding of human-centred design principles and responsible use of analytics and AI in order to make informed workplace decisions, as well as embrace the concept of Work tech (vs HR tech) to improve the workers’ experience (vs improving HR processes).

Ben Eubanks: Momentum. In the last two years, HR was given more opportunities, more exposure and more of the spotlight than ever before. When times are tough, business leaders turn to human resources leaders for advice and guidance. No matter what happens with hiring, the economy or other sweeping changes, HR leaders have to keep up that momentum they have built by being relevant, staying on top of trends and delivering value at every opportunity.

Adela Schoolderman: Talent acquisition will continue to be a challenge. We’ll remain in a supply deficit because there are not enough technically trained candidates for the demand in areas like data management, analysis and software development. Salaries will continue to inflate because of the talent supply/demand challenge, but also because some companies continue to attract candidates by giving larger and larger starting salaries. What we should be doing instead is 1) constantly re-recruiting and training our internals, 2) focusing on total rewards over the course of an employee’s career rather than throwing out a large amount just to get candidates to say yes and 3) flattening the pay gaps by adjusting internals’ salaries if they’re not as high as what we’re offering new hires to join.

Michael J. Leckie: Not giving in to easy answers and packaged solutions. Leaders are waking up to the fact that leadership is intensely human (something we HR professionals should be teaching them but have often done just the opposite). People, and how they work together (or don’t) is everything. No process in the world works when people cannot work together. So, HR will be tempted to source out systems, software and solutions that will “fix it all” easily… for a price. The hard reality is that the battle is fought leader by leader, group by group, person by person. Building change as a capability is job number one for leaders and HR should be the partner that shows them how (and, frankly, role models it themselves). This means learning how to reframe questions, coaching and teaching and building the depth and trusted relationships that allow HR to push back, be curious and explore before leaping in to advise or present solutions.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their HR career?

Anna Tavis: My advice is a classic staple: get yourself a mentor. There is no better investment in your career success than having a trusted colleague who can help navigate the challenges of our fast-evolving profession and help your personal growth.

Stephen Frost: The HR department is uniquely placed in terms of its access to people’s data and the qualitative understanding of how people feel in the organization. Ensure diversity and inclusion thinking is central to your practice, not a compliance add-on.

Stela Lupushor: A great leader will create an environment of trust - where workers trust the leadership and each other and where there is trust in the organizational mission and in the meaningful impact each individual can make. HR has a critical role to facilitate the building and nurturing of such an environment. Find opportunities to build trust, stand for integrity and restlessly pursue efforts that eliminate barriers to an environment of physical and psychological safety.

Ben Eubanks: Find a mentor. Look for someone who's excelling in the environment and area that you want to pursue and seek them out. The times I've mentored someone starting out weren't time- or labour-intensive, generally, but they gave me a chance to share missteps, offer practical advice and support them as they were getting their initial traction. Mentors were a key part of my success early on and helped to launch my HR career in the best possible way. I can't recommend this enough.

Adela Schoolderman: Learn basic project management skills and how to analyze data. Learn the business inside and out. Learn every aspect of HR you can before settling into one function.

Michael J. Leckie: Understand what you truly value and why you want to do this work and then be really, really diligent when choosing a place to start. Once you figure out what you hope to achieve, be sure you can see some signs that the organization you join is truly aligned with you. If they say they are “customer focused” ask for examples, tell them to inspire you with them. If they say they are “strategic partners” ask them about the strategies they’ve influenced and what results they’ve achieved with their business partners. Do your best to find a place aligned with who you are and what you want to do. There will always be disappointments in any organization but use them as a learning experience to help you continue to find your place in this field. Done right, it can be rewarding beyond your expectations as you change lives for the better.

About the authors

Anna Tavis is Clinical Professor and Academic Director of the Human Capital Management Department at NYU School of Professional Studies, Senior Fellow with the Conference Board and the Academic in Residence with Executive Networks. She’s the co-author of Humans at Work.

Stephen Frost is a leadership, communications and inclusion expert. He works with clients worldwide to embed inclusion in their decision making as CEO and Founder of Included. He’s the editor of The Key to Inclusion.

Stela Lupushor is the founder of Reframe.Work. She is also Program Director for the Strategic Workforce Planning and Talent Management Councils and the Human Capital Analytics Institute Senior Fellow shaping the research agenda of the Conference Board. She’s the co-author of Humans at Work.

Ben Eubanks is the Principal Analyst at Lighthouse Research & Advisory where he oversees the development of research, assets and insights to support HR, learning and talent executives. He’s the author of Artificial Intelligence for HR.

Adela Shoolderman has 15 years of experience as a talent acquisition professional. She was the Director of Learning Programs and Advisory Services at Talent Board; she developed a learning curriculum and custom enterprise programs to improve candidate experience. She’s the co-author of Candidate Experience.

Michael J. Leckie is the former Chief Learning Officer for the Digital Industrial Transformation at General Electric (GE) and is currently founding partner of Silverback Partners, LLC, an organizational consultancy based in Connecticut. He’s based in the Pacific Northwest and he’s the author of The Heart of Transformation.

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